NICOLE POPE

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NICOLE POPE
June 21, 2012, Thursday

Cycle of violence

Turkey buried eight more soldiers, the latest victims of a three-decade-old inability on the part of this country’s successive governments to break the cycle of violence and reach a political solution to the Kurdish question.

The attack has been widely condemned as an attempt to hinder timid efforts toward peace. The fact that a few events -- a rare meeting between the prime minister and the leader of the opposition, an interview with Kurdish member of parliament Leyla Zana, journalist Avni Özgürel’s account of his meeting with Kurdistan Workers’ Party PKK commander Murat Karayılan suggesting that the PKK may be ready to lay down its weapons and the introduction of the Kurdish language as an elective class in schools -- were sufficient to generate hope that a broader peace drive could be launched, in the absence of concrete progress, only underlines how fed up people are with this endless conflict.

If the need for a political solution is more widely understood, time and time again, isolated attacks by radical elements succeed in changing the national mood, illustrating a vast political failure to lay the popular ground for a more positive approach to the Kurdish question.

Turkish jets immediately retaliated by hitting PKK bases in northern Iraq. Nearly 20 years after 33 soldiers were ambushed and shot in 1993, putting an end to a promising ceasefire, Turkey is still caught in the same destructive cycle, in spite of the important shift in internal balances that has taken place in the intervening period.

Demonstrating strength is still understood as hitting the hardest and shouting the loudest, and a show of military might is still favoured over negotiations and compromise that would save lives on all sides. Zana drew strong criticism from fellow Kurdish politicians when she tried to prod Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan into taking bold action by acknowledging that he was in a position to solve the Kurdish issue, but she did also point out how damaging the “divide and rule” policy implemented by the state in recent years has been.

The deaths of young soldiers generated justified grief and anger. The general public, and indeed the government, often fail to see how tragedies like Uludere or the harsh conditions of detentions in the Southeast, highlighted by the recent deaths of Kurdish prisoners in Şanliurfa, also undermine the Kurdish people’s trust in the authorities’ willingness to hear their grievances and treat them as equal citizens.

It is hard to see how thousands of arrests of people allegedly connected to the Kurdistan Communities Union (KCK) are expected to encourage armed Kurdish militants to lay down their arms and return to Turkey: Such repressive policies can only be counterproductive.

Policemen in Fatih have just been filmed administering a savage beating to a man who was driving a pregnant relative to hospital: According to the victim, Ahmet Koca, the officers called him a terrorist when they heard him speak in Kurdish. If law enforcement officers are so prejudiced that they can’t make a distinction between a citizen of Kurdish origin going about his daily business and an armed militant, what hope is there that the general population can show more tolerance and support greater rights for the Kurds? Years of negative rhetoric directed at Kurds continue to poison the atmosphere and hinder genuine progress.

But police brutality does not only target Kurds: It is a broader problem that needs to be addressed separately. The latest incidence of police violence caught on camera highlights once more the need for Turkey to take stronger action to stop such abuses. An inquiry has been launched into the conduct of the seven officers involved, but past experience has shown that law-enforcement officers rarely get adequately punished for their excesses. The policemen filmed torturing Fevziye Cengiz, arrested last July in Izmir while enjoying an evening out in a club with her family, were given a minor fine and transferred to İstanbul, although a court stated they should face prosecution for torture. Cengiz herself faces heavy punishment for allegedly resisting arrest and insulting the officers.

Human Rights Watch has just urged the Turkish government to scrap a draft law on the establishment of a national human rights institution adopted a few days ago by a parliamentary commission and soon to be submitted to the approval of the General Assembly.

Turkey urgently needs a national institution that monitors and promotes human rights, but it needs one that can hold the government to account. The “zero tolerance” to torture and ill treatment promised by the Justice and Development Party (AKP) when it first came to power led to significant improvements for a while, but serious setbacks have been recorded in recent years. In its current form, the legislation states that board members would be appointed by the government, in contradiction with international standards known as the Paris principles, which require that such bodies be independent and represent all segments of civil society.

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